The Reckoning: The death of YA fiction

December 5, 2019

 

“The death of YA – it’s a thing believe me. Google it.”

 

 

It was a fleeting comment at a writer’s festival as we moved between venues and it filled me with dread. 

 

 

 

 

 

It was nothing I didn’t already know from my own experiences as a YA writer.

 

Publishers are reluctant to look at YA, with some completely closing their doors to the genre and others reducing titles on what were already lists that barely covered the calendar year.

 

In past years the industry blame game has put writers front and centre – we need another Harry Potter, another Hunger Games, another Twilight, more John Green. Why was no one writing any of these?

 

It’s been ten years or more since some of these books and I agree, they captured the imagination of teenagers back then and still do to this day.

 

But there has been no dearth of YA since Harry waved his wand for the first time – The Hate You Give, All the Bright Things and We Were Liars have been huge international standouts for me and there are too many Kiwi books for me to name here. So if it’s not us, the writers, at fault, who do we blame?

 

Point the finger at teenagers instead. It is them that are not buying YA, not reading YA: it’s this new generation of teenagers who are NOT READING AT ALL!

 

. . . it’s this new generation of teenagers who are NOT READING AT ALL!

 

Are we sure about that? I talk to school teachers, librarians and I talk to kids all the time and they are reading. They are reading more than they ever have. And on social media, they talk about what they’re reading, so others can find these great books too. In my day, I had to hunt through library shelves to find a book. It’s a different world now.

 

Believe me, it’s not the kids.

 

But it is the kids who are important. They ought to be at the centre of their own publishing. If there aren’t books published for them that inspire them, that show them different worlds, that make them think, then they are not going to be the lifelong readers that National Library and Read NZ Te Pou Muramura and many other agencies crave.

 

Reading may start at the early ages with picture books and learn-to-reads but it is in the teenage years that it becomes a habit.

 

Reading may start at the early ages with picture books and learn-to-reads but it is in the teenage years that it becomes a habit.

 

 

 

And high school librarians are calling out for books to fuel that habit. One who I talked to a month ago said she had not bought one YA book all year for her school’s library. It was nothing to do with the budget – the books just weren’t there to buy.

 

School teachers too are searching, although those teaching Year 11 and 12 English are still pulling out class sets of worn To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but the relevance to a 16-year-old Dunedin boy is about nil - except the bit where the father shoots the rabid dog in the street– they like that bit. You might as well teach the book as part of a history lesson. But the kids don’t care because they don’t have to actually read it – all of the answers they need to pass the exams can be found online. 

 

I hesitate to offer alternatives as I don’t know the curriculum well enough, but I’m sure there are some New Zealand books that could be considered instead?

 

It is the teachers of Years 6 to Years 10, who don’t have to meet stringent NCEA requirements, who are the ones who are really struggling to find local books.

 

And these are the ones who are working hard to promote reading in the classroom through initiatives such as Read Aloud, author visits and other programmes. They can’t do what they’re doing without books.

 

They can’t do what they’re doing without books.

 

So is it YA as a genre? It has a short history, arising from marketing in the late 80s, early 90s. Has it really had its day? Is it a genre, a selling point, or an age group of readers? Never has a genre (because it is a genre) been so misunderstood.

 

At the age of twelve a kid, who is a good reader, can read anything they want to. War and Peace, The Luminaries, Lee Child – let them have it.

 

So unlike junior fiction or picture books, YA is not about an age bracket.

 

What it is about is teenagers. Young adult fiction puts teenagers and their concerns front and centre. Love, life, death. As teenagers, many experience for the first time love for a person outside of their family circle. They understand that they have a life that they have to make choices about – it is their life and no one else’s. 

 

Young adult fiction puts teenagers and their concerns front and centre. Love, life, death.

 

 

That is what YA is about. Teenagers. Simple.

 

And lots of adults love to read it as well so it is a genre, with subgenres – romance, crime, horror and all the rest.

 

So that leaves us with publishers. Perhaps they are the problem? Writers haven’t stopped writing, kids haven’t stopped reading, but publishers have stopped publishing.

 

My feeling is that the days are long gone of a publisher putting out a great book and trusting it will find its readers without them doing much to make that happen.

 

I believe the connection between the producer and the consumer is broken. I want to drag publishers around with me on school visits so they can see the enthusiasm from kids and teachers. I want them to hear the clamour as kids ask for more, for a sequel, for another story just like the one they’ve just finished.  

 

I believe the connection between the producer and the consumer is broken.

 

I want them to front up and tell these kids why that’s not going to happen because I’m sick of trying to do it. 

 

Because I don’t have the answers. 

 

Editors' note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children's literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They're not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook.

Ella West

Ella West is a multi-award winning YA novelist who lives in Dunedin.  Her last book Night Vision, won the LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award in 2015, and was shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Award for Children and Young Adults. Her most recent book Rain Fall is a murder mystery set on the West Coast, and was released in January 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

I did Google it on my phone in the next session, completely ignoring the speaker and the looks of wrath from those seated around me, and found that in the UK and the US and Australia and even here, sales of YA fiction have been steadily dropping in the past few years. Junior and middle fiction is where it’s at. We should all be writing junior fiction.

 

 

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload